From Figs to Oranges: Madeline Miller on ‘The Song of Achilles’
Author: Heather Seggel
September 9, 2012
Madeline Miller immersed herself in the world and words of Homer’s Iliad for ten years, finding a love story nested among the gods and monsters in the Trojan War. The Song of Achilles (Ecco) garnered fabulous reviews and went on to win England’s prestigious Orange Prize, the last to be awarded under that name. Miller took time to answer a few burning questions on the eve of the book’s paperback release.
First off, congratulations on not just winning the Orange Prize, but winning it so forcefully they’re going to change the name now! What does the recognition mean to you?
Thank you! It was a tremendous honor for me, and I still feel a little speechless when I think about it. Having spent ten years living with this story in solitude, it was incredibly rewarding and wonderful to see it go out into the world. I am also thrilled to get to be part of the Orange prize’s legacy—they have done an amazing job of supporting female authors for the past seventeen years.
You spent a decade writing The Song of Achilles. What did that process look like? What other things pulled you away from it, or led you back?
I started writing the novel the summer after college, on the heels of directing a production of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s Trojan War play. Up until then, I had channeled my love of Classics into academics, so it was a revelation to realize that I could combine Classics with creativity. When the play was over, I found myself sitting in front of the computer and beginning to craft Patroclus’ voice.
During the years that followed, I was teaching full-time and directing Shakespeare plays, both of which pulled me away from writing. But they also helped bring me back—it’s hard to find a more inspiring teacher than Shakespeare for characterization and story-telling. And the passion and commitment of my students helped keep my own enthusiasm fresh.
Most of all, there were Achilles and Patroclus themselves. Every time I wondered if I should give up I found myself drawn back by their story. I felt passionately about giving Patroclus his chance to speak.
How were you initially drawn to study Latin and Greek? Did you follow that path with teaching in mind?
My mother used to read me the Greek myths at bedtime, and on the weekend she would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I remember staring at the Greek and Roman statues with absolute awe. From the beginning I think one of the things I loved most about the stories was how flawed and human the characters were. Despite the centaurs and gods, they felt like real people to me.
I took Latin and Greek the first chance I got, and fell head over heels for the ancient literature. After earning my BA and MA, teaching seemed like an obvious path. But what surprised me was how much I enjoyed teaching on its own terms. Classics or not, working with teenagers turned out to be one of the great pleasures and privileges of my life.
The Iliad calls many things to mind, but love is not first among them. Yet after reading The Song of Achilles and pecking at Richmond Lattimore’s translation, many scenes between Achilles and Patroclus jump out as not just affectionate but downright domestic, even in the midst of war. What drew your interest to their particular story, and how did you find the love amidst all that conflict?
I agree with you entirely about Achilles and Patroclus’ domesticity in the Iliad, though that was something that I noticed later. What originally drew me to their story was Achilles’ shockingly intense grief over Patroclus’ death, which is unlike anything else in the rest of the poem. I found it deeply moving, but also a little mysterious, since Patroclus was such a minor character. I wanted to understand who he was, and why his death so devastated Achilles.
The answer, as I found it, was love. Though Homer doesn’t explicitly say that they are lovers, Achilles’ grief has always seemed both passionate and physical to me—he wishes that only he and Patroclus would survive the war, and when Patroclus dies, he can’t let go of the body. So it was a matter of taking that moment of Achilles’ grief and imagining the depth of relationship that must have preceded it.
I was also intrigued by Patroclus on his own terms. He’s described in the Iliad as being “gentle”—a very unusual word for an ancient hero. It was fascinating to me that the only gentle man in the army would be the most beloved companion of the deadliest warrior.
One review that appeared online generated a lengthy thread of comments initiated by someone insisting “Achilles wasn’t gay.” It stands out as a funny position to take, given the lack of centaurs wandering through town and overall shortage of gods on earth, but I wondered if you’d had any feedback to that effect and if so, what your response is.
I’ve had a few responses like that, but happily only a few. As you say, it’s pretty pointless to debate the “truth” of one version of a myth over another—by definition, it’s fiction. One of my favorite parts about working with the Achilles tradition was precisely the fact that there weren’t any right answers, just different interpretations. Also, the tradition of Achilles and Patroclus being lovers is quite an old one, going back to Aeschylus and Plato. So it’s particularly absurd to claim that there’s no basis for it—it was well established nearly as far back as Homer, and continued all the way to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and beyond.
You currently teach Latin and Greek to high school students. Is your passion contagious, or is it a struggle to engage them?
I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful and curious students. Even if they don’t come in loving Latin, they’re willing to give it a try, and by the end they’re usually converts—if not to the language, then to the stories themselves. The ancient authors absolutely understood what makes for wonderful literature: adventure, love, loss, beauty. One of my favorite parts of teaching is watching a student encounter Homer or Sophocles for the first time and realize how startlingly relevant the ideas are to their own life.
The Song of Achilles strikes a delicate balance. You somehow preserve both the “ancient-ness” of a classic, yet it reads as both modern (in the sense of being emotionally accessible and also easy to read) and poetically lush. Was that a conscious goal?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. As a lover of Classics, it’s sad to me that Homer’s poetry has developed a reputation for being incomprehensible, dull and elitist. When these stories were composed, they were meant for everyone, the kind of things parents would pass on to their children. And they weren’t considered dull in the least—they were like a great action-adventure blockbuster combined with a beautiful lyric indie. I wanted my own novel to honor that tradition of inclusion—to be the sort of work where no one felt like they had to do homework before they could start reading.
What are you working on next/now?
A new novel inspired by the Odyssey. Writing The Song of Achilles, I found myself fascinated by Odysseus’ flexible morality and ruthless pragmatism, and the women of the Odyssey—Circe, and Penelope—have always been favorites of mine. I’m looking forward to exploring their stories.
Classics have the reputation of being difficult to read and somehow distant from life as it’s lived today. If you could sneak up behind someone in a bookstore who was deciding between Homer and Grisham, what would you whisper in their ear to make the case for doing it old school?
With no slight at all to Grisham (some of my best workouts have been to the last fifty pages of his novels), I think one of the reasons Homer has survived and been so beloved for so long is how acute his insight is into human nature. The trappings of culture may have changed but we haven’t—we’re just as flawed and proud and difficult as the ancients were. War is still war, and bad leaders are still bad leaders and love is still love—and Homer is masterful at portraying all of these and more. And while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Iliad and Odyssey for the elliptical machine, they are every bit as exciting as a page-turner!